Office Space

How important is the physical workspace to knowledge workers generally,and software developers specifically?  Everybody agrees it'simportant.  Talk to ten people, though, and you'll get nine differentopinions about what aspects are important and how muchthey impact effectiveness.  But there are some classic studies thatshed some light on the subject; looking around recently, they haven'tbeen refuted.  At the same time, a lot of people in the softwareindustry don't seem to have heard of them.

Take the amount and kind of workspace provided to each knowledgeworker.  You can quantify this (number of square feet,open/cubicle/office options).  What effects should you expect from,say, changing the number of square feet per person from 80 to 64?  Whatwould this do to your current project's effort and schedule?

There's no plug-in formula for this, but based on the available data,I'd guesstimate that the effort would expand by up to 30%.  Why?

"Programmer Performance and the Effects of the Workplace"describes the Coding War Games, a competition in which hundreds ofdevelopers from dozens of companies compete on identical projects. (Also described in Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams.) Thedata is from the 1980's, but hasn't been replicated since as far as Ican tell. The developers were ranked according to how quickly theycompleted the projects, into top 25%, middle 50%, and bottom 25%.  Thecompetition work was done in their normal office environments.
  • The top 25% had an average of 78 square feet of dedicated office space.
  • The bottom 25% had an average of 46 square feet of dedicated office space.
  • The top 25% finished 2.6 times faster, on average, than the bottom 25%, with a lower defect rate.
  • They ruled out the idea that top performers tended to be rewarded with larger offices.
Now, whether larger workspaces improve productivity, or whether moreproductive people tend to gravitate to companies with largerworkspaces, doesn't really matter to me as a manager.  Either way, theanswer is the same: Moving from 46 square feet per person to 78 squarefeet per person can reduce the time to complete a project by a factorof up to 2.6x.  That's big.  (Of course there were other differencesbetween the environment of the top 25% and the bottom 25%, but they arelargely related to issues like noise, interruptions, and privacy.  Itseems reasonable to assume these are correlated with people density.)

It itself, this doesn't give us an answer for the question we startedout with (changing from 80 square feet to 64 square feet per person,and bumping up the people density commensurately).  As a firstapproximation, let's assume a linear relationship between dedicatedarea per person and productivity ratios.  64 is just over halfwaybetween 46 and 78, so it seems reasonable to use half of the 2.6factor, or 1.3, as a guesstimate.  So using this number, a project thatwas going to take two weeks in the old environment would take 1.3 timesas long, or around two and a half weeks, in the new environment.  (Inthe long term, of course.)

To put this into perspective, it appears that increasing an organization's CMM level by one generally results in an 11% increase in productivity, and that the ratio of effort between worst and best real-world processes appears to be no more than 1.43.

You can't follow the numbers blindly here.  This probably depends a loton the kind of work you actually do, and I can think of dozens ofcaveats.  My gut feeling is that the penalty is likely to be more like10% than 30%, assuming you're really holding everything else (noise,interruptions, etc.) as constant as possible.  I suspect that theorganizations which are squeezing people into ice cube sized cubiclesare likely to be destroying productivity in other ways as well.  But,these numbers do provide some guidance as to what to expect in terms ofcosts and consequences of changing the workplace environment.

Links and references:


Community, social networks, and technology at Supernova 2004

Some afterthoughtsfrom the Supernova conference, specifically about social networks andcommunity.  Though it's difficult to separate the different topics. 

A quick meta-note here: Supernova is itself a social network of peopleand ideas, specifically about technology -- more akin to a scientificconference than an industry conference.  And, it's making a lot of useof various social tools: http://www.socialtext.net/supernova/,http://supernova.typepad.com/moblog/.

Decentralized Work (Thomas Malone) soundsgood, but I think there are powerful entrenched stakeholders that canwork against or reverse this trend (just because it would be gooddoesn't mean it will happen).  I'm taking a look at The Future of Work right now; one first inchoate thought is how some of the same themes are treated differently in The Innovator's Solution.

The Network is People - a panel with Chrisopher Allen, Esther Dyson, Ray Ozzie, and Mena Trott.  Interesting/new thoughts:
  • Chris Allen on spreadsheets:  Theyare a social tool for convincing people withnumbers and scenarios, just like presentation software is for convincing people withwords and images.  So if you consider a spreadsheet social software, well, what isn't social software?
  • "43% of time is spent on grooming in large monkey troupes."  (But wait, what species of monkeys are we talking about here?  Where are our footnotes?)  So,the implication is that the amount of overhead involved in maintainingtrue social ties in large groups is probably very high.  Tools thatwould actually help with this (as opposed to just growing the size ofyour 'network' to ridiculous proportions) would be a true killer app. 
  • Sizeof network is not necessarily a good metric, just one that's easy tomeasure.  Some people really only want a small group.
Syndication Nation - panel with Tim Bray, Paul Boutin, Scott Rosenberg, Kevin Marks, Dave Sifry. I felt that this panel had a lot of promise but spent a lot of time onbackground and/or ratholing on imponderables (like business models). Kevin and Tim tried to open this up a bit to talk about some of the newpossibilities that automatic syndication offers.  At the moment, it'smostly about news stories and blogs and cat pictures.  Someinteresting/new thoughts:
  • Kevin statedthat # of subscribers to a given feed follows a power law almostexactly, all the way down to 1.  So even having a handful of readers isan accomplishment.  One might also note that this means the vastmajority of subscriptions are in this 'micropublishing' area.
  • New syndication possibilities mentioned: Traffic cameras for your favorite/current route. 
  • The Web is like a vast library; syndicated feeds are about what's happening now (stasis vs. change).  What does this mean?
  • The oneinteresting thing to come out of the how-to-get-paid-for-thisdiscussion: What if you could subscribe to a feed of advertising thatyou want to see?  How much more would advertisers pay forthis?  (Reminds me of a discussion I heard recently about radiostations going back to actually playing more music and lesstalk/commercials: They actually get paid more per commercial-minutebecause advertisers realize their ad won't be buried in a sea of crapthat nobody is listening to.)
More on some of the other topics later.